Report: Police departments need mental health programs

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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – A U.S. Justice Department report prompted by the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre urges police chiefs around the country to put mental health programs in place in to help officers cope with on-the-job trauma, including the aftermath of mass shootings.

The report, offered as a best practices guide, was prepared with help from officials including retired Newtown police chief Michael Kehoe, who led the response to the 2012 school shooting and worried over the following weeks that some of his officers might kill themselves.

Most police departments train to respond to mass shootings, but few prepare officers for the psychological fallout, says the report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The 140-page report emphasizes how to prepare for mass shootings, but it says taking steps such as choosing trusted mental health service providers, creating peer support programs, and designating mental health incident commanders also will help officers cope with more common events such as car crashes, suicides and domestic violence.

Law enforcement experts say it has been a struggle to create conditions in which officers feel comfortable coming forward for help.

“Are we there yet? No. That’s why this report is so significant because it raises awareness,” said Jim Baker, director of advocacy for the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Alexandria, Virginia.

Kehoe wrote in the report that many chiefs are unaware of the impact that mass casualty events will have on their communities and officers. In Newtown, a gunman fatally shot 20 first-graders and six educators inside Sandy Hook Elementary before killing himself as police arrived on Dec. 14, 2012.

Kehoe’s wife, Lori Kehoe, a former hospice nurse, said that a few weeks after the school shooting, her normally cool, calm and collected husband became unnerved worrying that some of his officers would kill themselves, which didn’t happen.

The suicide rate for police officers is higher than the general public’s, according to The Badge of Life, a group of current and retired officers working to prevent police suicides. Studies show there are about 125 to 150 officer suicides a year and more than 200,000 officers are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or some other form of emotional stress, the group says.

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